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Tongue-tied in yoga

Learning Sanskrit

Learning the lingo is not easy when it comes to studying Sanskrit, writes Victoria Jackson

My husband is used to being baffled by my yoga-talk at home, but recently he says I sound as though I’m speaking Klingon. I’m not bunged up with a winter cold and I definitely haven’t suddenly become a Trekkie. I’ve just started learning Sanskrit. I’ve been practicing my pronunciation beginning with the velar stops — essentially variations on the sounds ‘ka’ and ‘ga’ — which apparently makes me sound as though I’m getting ready for a sci-fi convention.

But making the sounds is child’s play compared to recognising the letters on the page. Although it looks very beautiful, the fact that Sanskrit is written in the Devanagari script is really my biggest challenge. I’m very slow and my reading requires a finger under the word as I work out each syllable, much as I remember doing in primary school when I was learning to read English. Only when I’ve sounded out each part of the word can I tell if I recognise it. For example, when I slowly eased my way through a word to find eventually that it said ‘matsya’ I was really excited. I know this word from Matsyasana (fish pose). Similarly, when my book had a picture of a tree with a word under it, I knew it must say ‘vrksha’ (from knowing Vrkshasana) even if I couldn’t immediately read it — trust me, this is a tricky one in Devanagari!

But a little knowledge can be dangerous, and this applies to learning Sanskrit as much as anything else. I mean, have you ever encountered someone who’s learnt a bit of holiday Italian and therefore thinks it is okay in their local café back home to order ‘two cappuccini and one panino’? Yes, technically correct, but it sounds very contrived. Similarly, I now know that the common pronunciation of ‘Hatha’ is nothing like it should be. It’s actually not Hath-ah, as most of us say, but is more like Hut-hah. But if I go into my local studio and check into the Hatha class by asking for ‘Hut-hah Yoga’, I’m going to get some very odd looks. I’d feel quite silly and I don’t want to become a total Sanskrit bore.

Pronunciation confusion aside, I love that I can already dip into the Yoga Sutras and pick out some words at least. I’m also finding that some familiarity with Sanskrit is helping me remember mantras more easily so that I can now absorb myself in the sounds and enjoy a new aspect to my yoga practice. I certainly won’t be reading the Bhagavad Gita anytime soon, but little by little I’m getting better at recognising Devanagari letters.

It’s a bit like asana practice — you just have to keep coming back to it and be patient until it starts to flow more naturally.

Victoria Jackson lives and teaches in Oxford. She is registered with Yoga Alliance Professionals as a vinyasa yoga teacher. Read more of Victoria’s OM Lite columns.

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